Technology and culture writing

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External Memory: Nostalgia for an Internet that Never Was

In 2010, the internet discovered Space Jam, although you could also say it was Space Jam that had earlier discovered the internet. Released in 1996, the film boasted one of the first movie marketing websites, and perhaps the first to actually take advantage of the technology of the web. In 2010, the site was still online and unchanged when it was found by a group of Reddit users who experienced a kind of Proustian memory, rediscovering a childhood and adolescence spent online at a time when that world seemed much smaller, and much friendlier, than it is now.


why was the computer never patented?

Historian I.B. Cohen identifies three types of devices that converged in the first general-purpose computers: "early calculating machines, statistical machines, and logical automata." The first of the general purpose machines is assumed, by most people, to be the ENIAC.

The ENIAC, for "Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer" was constructed at the University of Pennsylvania's Moore School of Engineering, under a contract from the U.S. Army, signed in 1943.

During and immediately after the war, the Army requested additional machines and the EDVAC (Electronic Discrete Variable Automatic Computer) was begun, also at the Moore School, based on a "logical design" by John von Neumann. Within this design was the idea for the stored program. Von Neumann "suggested that the instructions for the computer—always before entered on punched paper tape, or by plugboards—could be stored in the computer's electronic memory and treated in exactly the same manner as numerical data."

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A history of our obsession with the disease apocalypse

In the 1950s, disease epidemics like the 1919 Spanish Flu seemed to be a thing of the past. Penicillin was being described as "yellow magic" and "the most glamorous drug ever invented." Plus, polio vaccines seemed to herald the end of the viral epidemics that had haunted every U.S. summer since 1916. Medical students were even being encouraged to give up studying infectious diseases.

Yet even as the age of infectious disease seemed to be waning, stories about devastating infections proliferated. The 1950s saw the beginning of the plague genre we know so well today in stories from Walking Dead to Contagion. These are stories about killer microbes, but they're also about social panic and the collapse of civilization. It's often hard to say which is worse: dying from a horrific plague, or being murdered by a gang of lawless humans, roaming the disease-ravaged countryside.


Stepford wives and sexbots

Angela Carter’s novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1986, 2011), describes a brothel peopled by female automata,

Each was as circumscribed as a figure in rhetoric and you could not imagine they had names, for they had been reduced by the rigorous discipline of their vocation to the undifferentiated essence of the idea of the female. This ideational femaleness took amazingly different shapes though its nature was not that of Woman.

What is “ideational,” here—that is, present in thought but absent from view—is the essence of “woman.” The fictive nature of femininity, a nature which gets revised in different times and places, is a theme in Julie Wosk’s My Fair Ladies. But for Wosk, as for Carter, what is significant about that theme is that, as often as such automata appear “as circumscribed as a figure in rhetoric,” they are, just as frequently, figures for women’s escape from social constraints.

(accessible with a Women's Review of Books subscription)

On the failure (so far) of wearable technology

Susan Elizabeth's Ryan's history, Garments of Paradise, begins in 1956 with Atsuko Tanaka's Electric Dress, a work that was both garment and performance. Electric Dress is an intersection between the two main tracks of modern wearable technology: fashion and computers. While these two tracks are often seen as separate, this history considers them together.

But by the 1960s, Ryan shows, computers were also beginning to be wearable. In 1961, Edward O. Thorpe had sought out Claude Shannon, and the two had collaborated on a wearable computer, consisting of a processor the size of a cigarette pack and an earpiece, that enabled the former to predict the outcome of roulette games. Later in the 1960s, ARPA funded the first computer heads-up display, a very early virtual-reality-type helmet and goggles, called the Sword of Damocles.

In December 1975, Newsweek's book critic Peter S. Prescott began a feature on the science fiction literature and film that was taking up an ever-greater place in American culture by sounding a note of alarm. Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren had been published in January of that year, Ursula K. LeGuin's The Dispossessed had been published the year before, while Slaughterhouse Five and Cat's Cradle were establishing Kurt Vonnegut as a major literary figure. Prescott was horrified.

Suddenly, they're all around us. Too late now to think of repelling them, or even of self-defense. They've conquered the nursery and have sunk tentacles into the colleges. Disguised as pimply kids and pallid biochemists, they look like us , and are multiplying, communicating with one another in frequencies the rest of us don't hear. They have a message for us, too: We're taking over. Pay attention. Be respectful.

The "them" that Prescott is afraid of are "the science fiction people," and Prescott holds those people in a great deal of contempt.